Every three years, the entire Episcopal Church gathers for what is called General Convention. Eight lay and ordained people from every diocese in the Episcopal Church and all the bishops gather in two houses to pass legislation that will govern the whole of the church. Issues range widely, from authorizing new liturgies, to promoting social justice issues, to human resources issues for clergy and lay staff, to who will guide and govern the church. One topic that is coming around again this year is whether the Episcopal Church should remove the baptism requirement for the reception of Holy Eucharist. Even though practices range pretty widely, technically the canons of the Episcopal Church reserve communion for those who have been baptized. The issue is highly contested, has been written about widely, and I could spend a whole hour teaching on this topic. At the heart of the debate are issues of belonging, identity, hospitality, and evangelism.
As I have watched some of the initial debate heat up in the Episcopal Church, I marvel at how, as much as the Church has changed over the years, much remains the same. After Jesus’ ascension, and as the disciples and apostles began to spread the Good News far and wide, Peter and the other disciples begin to debate the issue of membership – whether uncircumcised Gentiles could become full members of the body of Christ without being circumcised. In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear the story of how the apostles call Peter in and question his fellowship with uncircumcised Gentiles. Peter launches into a story about a vision he had and what God said to him about “membership” in the body of Christ. After hearing Peter’s testimony, there is silence. The weight of such a change hovers in the silence – issues of belonging, identity, hospitality, and evangelism hanging in the air.
So much about this story today is human. Time and time again, from the beginning of time, we have debated who is in and who is out. There are benign ways and malicious ways of defining those boundaries, but ultimately those boundaries help us know who we are so we understand who we are not. We agree to a set of behaviors and activities every time we reaffirm our baptisms. Clubs and civic groups have criteria for admitting members. Colleges have criteria for who can be a student, and what can get you expelled. Even retirement communities have rules about what age you can be before you can move into the community. But the malicious ones are trickier. Redlining is a practice that has kept people of certain races and ethnicities from owning homes in certain areas. Women are unable to serve as ministers in certain faith traditions. LGBTQ identifying individuals were denied the same spousal rights and parenting rights as straight individuals. The question becomes how do we define who we are and what we are about without harming or maligning others?
Some have argued Jesus gives us the answer in John’s gospel today. Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The instructions sound simple enough. Our Presiding Bishop preaches nothing but the gospel of love. But the instruction to love one another so people will know we are disciples does not make the issue of membership simple. I love my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters but that does not make them Christian any more than their love of me makes me Jewish or Muslim. I remember in seminary an interfaith dialogue between our Episcopal Dean and a Muslim leader in the community. When they were establishing the ground rules for the conversation, the Muslim leader said, “We both enter into this conversation with deep respect for one another. But for either of us to say that we are not trying to recruit the other would be a lie. Of course I want you to become a Muslim: I would not be a good Muslim if I did not think being a Muslim was the right path. The same is true for you. If you are not trying to convert me, I would wonder about the ferocity of your faith.”
What the texts do today is invite us into a challenging space. By telling us to love one another, Jesus is not telling us that love denies who we are. Likewise, by the disciples arguing about who can be Christians and who cannot, and coming to a conclusion that the Holy Spirit is doing something new does not mean that the disciples are diminishing their identity or the identity of the community. Peter does not water down the gospel. He simply invites the disciples to reconsider who could ascribe to that gospel. What these two texts do together is remind us that loving one another means both holding fast to the gospel, while trusting the Holy Spirit enlivens the gospel. The two texts together remind us that loving one another means we can be both generous and orthodox. The two texts together remind us that loving one another means we can say yes and no, and find a gracious gray area where love abides. What Jesus simply asks is that in the silence of the question – the silence that stood between Peter and the disciples before they made a decision – we allow love to do love’s work, so that our discernment of the Spirit can flourish. Amen.